Insurgent Anthropologies

Just as it is ironic for the name of the fight against Western cultural imperialism to be invoked in defense of oppressive traditions and inherited privilege in the non-Western world, it is also ironic for the protection of Western values to be invoked in defense of the social exclusion of (and violence and warfare against) non-Western peoples.

There is no use in denying that for some Europeans (and their descendants in North America, Australia, etc.) a racial worldview in its paleo-conservative form still animates much popular xenophobia, the scapegoating of immigrants, and the justification of military and political-economic imperialism.

There is only so much that progressives can do to dialogue with far right racists. Progressives can continue to articulate the biological facts about race, and continue to testify about the historical and contemporary reproduction of racism and imperialism in Euro-American societies. Most importantly, progressives can form alliances in anti-racist struggles.

With the rise to prominence of the Tea Party in the United States, and the resurgence of far right nationalisms in Europe, the threat from paleo-conservatism has become far more pressing than many had imagined with the triumph of liberalism in the late twentieth century. Just like the racist populisms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the paleo-con agenda promotes a notion of democracy that is restricted in national, racial, religious and class terms. Like the Democratic Party before and after the American Civil War, the Tea Party claims to believe in Democracy. Democracy, that is, for white, property-owning American citizens of European Judaeo-Christian descent.

Whatever fantasies an intellectual like Marcus Garvey may have had about finding common ground with white racial separatists, this position is untenable in a world where the defense of white privilege remains an important factor in the political economy of many of the world’s advanced capitalist nations. By way of racially stratified labor forces, for example, and by way of the relative ease by which wars of aggression against non-white peoples are justified in comparison with wars against the nations of Europe and its settler colonies.

Furthermore, whatever illusions that some American trade unionists might have once had that they could hide behind nationalism (ally themselves with nativists in order to restrict wage competition by restricting immigration, boost the American economy through militarism, etc.) it now seems likely that the new immigrants are the only hope that the American labor movement has of ever re-building a mass base, and that militarism has helped to bleed the American economy dry of resources that could have been put to far more productive use, and more equitably shared. The struggle of American laborers (clearer today than ever) is to fight alongside the immigrant laborer for better working conditions ? against the same enemy, the transnational capitalist class. The struggle to end the War Economy also needs to be seen as inseparable from the struggle for economic justice. The old populist and nationalist illusions must today be rejected in no uncertain terms.


For much of the neo-conservative and center-right as well, the specter of race still haunts its rhetoric. On the surface, and in its public discourse, neo-conservatism concedes to liberal democratic theory most of its main tenets about equality and tolerance. But racism haunts the neo-conservative discourse through the use of coded language that white voters and citizens recognize as being statements about race, even when race is not directly mentioned. This discourse has often very clearly shaped policy, and in the America that I grew up in, we all knew that talk about crime, drugs, welfare and poverty was talk about race: regardless of the “color-blind” language, and regardless of the empirical realities of these social phenomena.

But let’s set the far right aside for a moment, and take the neo-conservative rhetoric at face value. The Western values that neo-conservatives claim that they are protecting are not the values of ethnocentrism, colonialism, racism and imperialism. Rather, the values that the neo-cons claim that they are protecting are the values of democracy and reason, whose lineage they trace back to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, the values of universalism, the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and the values of science, progress, equality, liberty and individualism that emerged out of the Western Enlightenment. All of these, they claim or imply, form the basis of the superiority of American and Western European values over the backwardness of much of the rest of the world. The values of the non-Western world, according to these views, are often rooted in blind adherence to repressive traditions, obedience to undemocratic, arbitrary authority and inherited privilege, resistance to scientific and political progress, tribalism, communalism and conflict based on an attachment to primordial identities, and the suppression of individualism by conformity to the collective. Samuel Huntington articulated these claims by reference to differences in “civilizational” values. According to Huntington, differences in civilizational values often emerged out of differences in religious heritage: the values of Islamic civilization, Confucian civilization, etc., were said to be unavoidably headed towards conflict with the above mentioned values of the enlightened West.

For neo-cons, the West is modern in all of the positive senses of this world, and its duty ? its historical mission ? is to remake the rest of the world in its own image. In some sense, the neo-con rhetoric is quite faithful to Liberalism as it was classically conceived. David Harvey has made this quite clear in lectures and public talks where he has offered a close analysis of the speeches of George W. Bush, where he has revealed the Bush administration’s affinity to the ideas of classical liberalism.


Anyone who was interested in serious political economic analysis during the years immediately before and after the end of the Cold War, was aware that there was considerable continuity between the policies of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies, and the Clinton presidency. Many of us noted during the 1990s that Bill Clinton seemed to have completed the Reagan revolution: instituting strict welfare reform policies at home, disciplining the labor market through economic policies which exponentially increased the wealth of Wall Street, while keeping Main Street relatively secure by offsetting stagnating or declining hourly wages with an increase in working hours, and an expansion of the availability of consumer credit.

The Clinton administration (albeit with a Republican controlled Congress) helped government absolve itself of responsibility for the poor and working poor, and helped big capital suppress wages, and use the mechanisms of debt to increase its absolute exploitation of the majority of American workers. Meanwhile, internationally, the Clinton administration aggressively pursued the interests of American capital, in the name of a new model of globalization, where a rising tide would lift all boats, and the invisible hand of the market would bring not only economic prosperity, but also, freedom, liberty, and happiness to the world’s poor as well as to the world’s rich.

Unfortunately, the real situation internationally was much like the domestic scene writ large. Big capital, particularly finance capital, experienced a rapid increase in its power worldwide. In the developed world, finance capital often flourished at the expense of industrial capital. In some parts of the developing world (in what dependency theorists once called capitalism’s “semi-periphery”) finance capital leveraged the rapid development of industrial capital, and the consolidation of regional economic blocs and the regional centralization of capitalist class power. These processes could be seen in East Asia, in India, in South Africa, and in Brazil, for instance. Other areas of the developing world, however, became more truly peripheral to the world’s capitalist markets, and whole economies were devastated with a stroke of the pen by the World Bank and the IMF, coupled with the aggressive pursuit by core capitalist countries of the agendas of their own capitalist classes at the expense all other considerations.

This era, which we have come to call neo-liberal (according to its supporters as well as to many of its detractors) was said to be one in which the notion of the nation-state was declining in significance, and state-based regulation and intervention in the economy was said to be counter-productive and a barrier to economic growth. The example of the triumph of Western capitalism over the Soviet Union, and the collapse of Soviet-style centralized and bureaucratized state socialism was seen, in these years just after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, to be all the empirical evidence that was necessary to prove that only free markets, laissez-faire capitalism, and the removal of state regulations could create the environment in which dynamic economic growth was possible.

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey (2005: 64-67) characterizes the neoliberal theory of the state, as pioneered by theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, as having the following characteristics:

1. “According to theory, the neoliberal state should favour strong individual property rights, the rule of law, and the institutions of freely functioning markets and free trade.”

2. Also according to the theory, divestment of state ownership of assets, and privatization of nearly all state-owned industries and resources was considered imperative to the proper functioning of dynamic economies.

3. With the emphasis on free markets, also came an emphasis on personal and individual responsibility, and the subsequent withdraw of the state from concerns over “welfare, education, health care, and even pensions”.

4. All barriers to the free movement of capital needed to be swept aside.

5. Finally, and some would argue most ominously, democracy was viewed with some suspicion in countries that did not have developed economies and a robust middle class. As in the case of some of the classical theories of liberal democracy, neo-liberal theorists are concerned that the free functioning of the liberal economy be protected from the sometimes irrational influences of the democratic masses, whose demands for equality, a social safety net, collective ownership, or national protection could irrationally interfere with the smooth functioning of otherwise ideal liberal capitalist economies.

While these theories, for the economists, formed an internally consistent whole, there were a series of contradictions inherent in their effects in the real world that have contributed to the economic crisis which the world has experienced from 2007 until the present.

Of particular interest to me, is one contradiction of the neoliberal state that was apparent prior to the presidency of George W. Bush, which events since 9/11 have exacerbated. That is, while neo-liberal theory emphasizes that The State ought not to interfere in the economic realm, this rule is unevenly and unequally applied, in predictable ways, and with predictable consequences. Under neo-liberalism, states have been perfectly willing to increasingly use their coercive powers, not to bring the excesses of capitalism into check. Rather, under the neo-liberalism, the state has increasingly used coercion and force to act on behalf of capital, in order to discipline labor and agents of dissent in the capitalist metropole and peripheries, but also, increasingly, to attempt to discipline any challenge to the continued dominance of world capitalism under American hegemony in the 21st century.

These contradictions, which so many progressives had hoped would be resolved under the Obama administration, to more “moderate” capitalist policies such as those of Keynesianism or of a return to the welfare state policies of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, most of the tendencies towards the coercive use of the state on behalf of capital have continued, and I would argue have even been expanded and deepened, under the administration of Barack Obama.

CHRISTOPHER CARRICO is a Lecturer II in the Anthropology Programme, Department of Language and Cultural Studies, School of Education and Humanities, University of Guyana.


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